This was the world of “organized baseball” — a term that would come into vogue at the height of the Negro leagues to simply denote non-Negro-leagues professional baseball — that awaited Grant. By this time it was 1884, he was 19 and still in Williamstown, pitching for an integrated amateur team, the Greylocks, on the town’s south side. If an apartheid form of baseball was the will of the N.A.B.B.P., the message had yet to either register with or deter Grant, who grew up playing baseball with white kids in town.
One contemporary newspaper article on Grant in his prime remarked that “wherever he had played, he has quickly become a favorite.” But the story of Grant’s prime years is also the story of the color line catching up to him. “Were it not for the fact that he is a colored man,” the article continued, “he would without a doubt be at the top notch of the records among the finest teams in the country.”
Given that the article headlines Grant’s contentious move from the no-longer-integrated Buffalo Bisons to the all-Black Cuban Giants — the first all-Black professional baseball club and a team stacked with late-19th-century heavyweights like George Stovey and Clarence Williams — it was clear that Grant actually was on one of “the finest teams in the country.” The Sporting News, far from an ally of Black ballplayers in that era, said of that vintage of the Cuban Giants, “This club, with its strongest players on the field, would play a favorable game against such clubs as the New Yorks or Chicagos,” referring to teams of the nonintegrated leagues.
Bob Kendrick is the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. On a recent Friday afternoon, he told me that the museum was busy preparing for its conversion to a Covid-vaccination center for the community come Monday. Kendrick is a gifted storyteller, and the oral tradition flows freely through him. Players flashed and flickered in his voice — Moses Fleetwood Walker, Josh Gibson, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Buck O’Neil, Cool Papa Bell, Monte Irvin, Satchel Paige — but when I brought up Aaron, a melancholy took hold of his voice before he let go and began to reflect joyously.
“For me, the statistical aspect of this is almost secondary. It’s the recognition and the atonement that comes along with the acknowledgment of the Negro Leagues as just what it was: a major league,” Kendrick told me.
“I, for one, don’t ever want the lore and legend to go away,” he continued. “These stories about Josh Gibson should be viewed as larger than life. Babe Ruth was in many eyes Paul Bunyan. Well, for Black folks, Josh Gibson was John Henry. And I don’t want to lose that.”
His favorite photograph in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum collection is one of Henry Aaron in 1952, when Aaron was 18. He stands on the tracks of the L&N Railroad station in Mobile, posing uncomfortably. The sun is in his eyes, and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, so he hides them behind his back. On the ground right beside him is a duffel bag — maybe it holds two changes of clothes, a glove, a baseball. Maybe he has $2.50 tucked away in his pocket. Aaron is waiting for a train to take him to Winston-Salem, N.C., where he will meet up with his first professional team: the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. He would play only 26 games for the Clowns — hitting for a .366 average, with five home runs and nine stolen bases while playing shortstop. Compared with the statistical legacy he would leave Major League Baseball, these may seem a trifle, a small sample size. Until you ask yourself, as Aaron asked us to, How did it come about?